Review: Teaching Unplugged

I had been really looking forward to reading Teaching Unplugged (Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury, Delta Publishing, 2009). The idea of an unplugged teaching methodology- that is, a teaching methodology that does not use technology, or if it does, very minimally – is very appealing to me since I have a strong dependence on technology. I consistently use PowerPoint, YouTube, Google, smartphones, and this very site (to name a few examples) to try to enhance students’ learning experiences inside the classroom, as well as extend their learning outside the classroom. That being said, I feel one essential quality of a well-rounded teacher is to be able to teach in any environment, with minimal materials. Technology often fails, and it can often distract us from both content and real human interaction in the classroom, which is essential for learning.

In truth, both teachers and students enjoy using technology in the classroom, but it is nice to get a break from it. An over reliance on technology can lead to not only focusing on accoutrements extraneous to the what is being learned but also missing important interactions with the learners themselves. Therefore, I feel that being able to teach unplugged is a vital skill that all teachers should have.

What is Teaching Unplugged?

Enter Teaching Unplugged. Teaching Unplugged is based on the Dogme 95 film movement which tries to create films “based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology” (“Dogme 95”, 2013). Dogme ELT – the underlying philosophy of Teaching Unplugged – transforms these ideas for the language classroom. A Dogme ELT classroom sheds itself of coursebooks, materials, and technology while emphasizing a focus on the learners and the content they bring to the classroom, namely their lives. From this transformation, three core tenets arise: Dogme ELT is conversation-driven, materials-light, and focuses on emergent language. Dogme ELT is an extremely student-centered philosophy which shares much in common with task-based learning and communicative language teaching. Likewise, it is equally well rooted in theories of second language acquisition. That is, it is not simply an education fad but a sincere educational paradigm shift based on good research.

The Dogme 95 film movement bills itself as an avant-garde movement. Knowing this, I was expecting Teaching Unplugged to be similarly radical in its language teaching approaches. As I was reading this book, I kept wondering when the truly radical, transformative ideas would show up. They never did.

Good Teachers Already Do Dogme?

The ideas in Dogme ELT are nothing new. The book often refers to “Dogme moments” in which regular non-Dogme classes experience moments in which the focus is solely on the students and the teacher uses their students as a springboard to further language learning. These moments, according to the authors, have probably been experienced by all teachers at some point. Dogme ELT simply takes these moments as a starting point and runs with them.

The ideas, tips, and techniques in Teaching Unplugged are very common sense. For me, this was one of its downfalls. Many of the things it had to say about language teaching are things that I thought all good language teachers did. For example, personalization is a central theme in all Dogme ELT activities. But, don’t all good language teachers include personalization in their lessons? Sure, we don’t usually give the entire class period over to it, but every single lesson I teach allows for some personalization. I usually start the class with personal discussions so that students can relate to whatever topic we may be discussing, and I always have activities (especially at the end) that allow students to use whatever linguistic skills they covered to talk about themselves in some way. This is to ensure students are using language in meaningful contexts, a proven requisite for learning.

Dogme ELT is also very much against coursebooks. They see coursebooks, even those with the best of intentions, as never truly fitting the needs and interests of the courses. In addition, they feel teachers rely too much on these books. Hence, the idea of teaching to the book. But, I wonder how many teachers actually do every activity in the book without modification? How many teachers follow coursebooks as if they are the Bible? I believe any good teacher would skip, modify, adapt, and supplement activities to maximize learning and communication.

I’m not a coursebook apologist. I agree with almost everything they levee against coursebooks. Nonetheless, I think they have put too much emphasis on the role of the coursebook compared to the teacher and the students. After all, coursebooks are nothing but tools, and I think good teachers know this.

A typical Dogme ELT activity introduces a conversation-based task that is somehow connected to students lives. After the task, the lesson is built based on the language emerging from the users themselves. After the activity, the teacher highlights and expands upon the vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and other linguistic elements the learners used. A good teacher most likely already does this to some extent, though they probably don’t make it the major focus of the lesson. Here, I agree that non-Dogme teachers need to put more emphasis on emergent language, especially as a way to go beyond the linear nature of coursebook grammar and vocabulary and get to the multiple skills that need to be used for real communication..

Dogme as Disservice

The main area in which I strongly disagree is where Dogme ELT puts its strongest emphasis: an extreme student focus. As I said before, all good teachers allow for personalization. In fact, for young learners, personalization may be one of the best methods to follow. However, at higher levels and older ages, a sole focus on the personal may not just be a poor choice but may also be doing students a great disservice.

Students need to learn to talk about things other then themselves. That’s reality. We don’t just talk about our families, jobs, hobbies, and likes and dislikes. In fact, any good conversationalist knows not to talk about themselves for too long. In real life, we talk about a whole range of things that extend beyond the self: news, politics, the past, the future, the environment, justice, science, sports, philosophy. We can wait for these topics to naturally arise in the classroom, but we may be waiting forever. This may be especially true if students’ language abilities are limited. How much language can emerge when there is so little language to begin with? Similarly, how can anything but the personal emerge? Shouldn’t students be able to talk about more than themselves?

This kind of extreme student-centered teaching is called humanist English language teaching, or to be more specific: romantic humanist. Nick Gadd (1998) points out a number of downfalls of this approach:

Firstly, because it is based on a view of the English teacher’s role as a monitor and nurturer of the
student’s inner self which, while well established, is presumptuous and of doubtful value; secondly because it leads to the students being taught an inadequate number of registers of English, and thus hampers their progression towards independence as language users; and thirdly, taking a wider view, because a focus on the inner self as a source of learning does not encourage or permit the students’ intellectual and cognitive development. (p. 227)

A more apt quote that can directly be applied to Teaching Unplugged:

The problem is that so many of the activities proposed depend on the use of a register which is friendly, informal, even intimate, on the naive assumption that this kind of language is in some way more genuine. So students participate in discussions in which they interrogate each other about their habits, experiences, behaviour, personal histories, and hobbies; they write letters, diaries, poems, and stories. Amusing as these may be, they limit the students to being able to chat with friends and commune with themselves. (p. 229)

Essentially, while a humanist approach on the surface seems more meaningful and thus effective, it turns out that students are not being taught the language skills that are required for true second language communication. These types of skills are left to chance or not touched upon at all when the focus is solely on the students and their emergent language. Any number of coursebooks seem to take this approach. Thinking about the coursebooks I use, each one is essentially a guide to how to chat with friends, intermixed with grammar or language functions. Turning Teaching Unplugged on its head for a moment, it may serve one well to toss out these coursebooks not so much to unplug as to refocus back on students’ needs rather than there feelings.

Gadd recommends teaching students from a larger array of linguistic registers or discourses and focusing on more complex and critical language skills. I do not think his approach precludes one from being friendly or getting to know their students. Indeed, he embraces this type of rapport. Nor does it prevent one from using personalization (after all, the personal is one type of discourse, isn’t it?) in the classroom. In my opinion, a healthy mix of personalization and more external and critical linguistic discourse is needed. Unfortunately, Teaching Unplugged only offers the former.

Conclusion

Teaching Unplugged is a worthwhile book to read. It contains very useful, easily adaptable activities. In addition, it serves as motivation for connecting more with our students than we probably already do. Its focus on emergent language is perhaps its strongest point. Despite its limitations, all our classrooms need more “Dogme moments”. But, in the end, Dogme ELT represents what good teachers already do, taken to the extreme. If one truly wants to follow an avant-garde style of teaching, one that is a radical departure from the common approaches to ELT, Gadd’s arguments need to be taken to heart. I leave you with one final quote from Gadd’s article:

Moskowitz (1978: 4) asks ‘What greater knowledge can we give our students than knowledge of themselves?’, to which Atkinson (1989: 270) drily retorts: ‘Knowledge of the language we are teaching them, perhaps?’ (p. 226)

 

References

Gadd, N. (1998). Towards less humanistic English teaching. ELT Journal 52(3), 223-234.

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching unplugged: Dogme in English language teaching. DELTA Publishing.

Dogme 95. (2013, February 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:23, March 21, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dogme_95&oldid=539446140

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